From entire cities paralyzed by ransomware to individuals targeted with fake credit card offers, fraud is suddenly everywhere.
In the high-stakes world of consumer and corporate fraud and online financial crimes- a worldwide, underground cottage industry estimated well into the billions- modern criminals, like their antisocial predecessors of yesteryear, still love low-hanging fruit best.
Forgot what you saw in the movies; the best, savviest, wealthiest, most prolific, wily, and difficult to catch criminals who have ever lived do not seek out Mission Impossible-level scenarios to overcome for a big score.
They don’t need to; not with so much low-hanging financial fruit, just dangling on the vine.
The measures companies, private individuals and government agencies take to protect themselves from online fraudsters, hackers, and organized crime rings are laughably inadequate at times.
At best, most are staying one step ahead of innovative criminals willing to exploit any loophole, any system weakness, any lapse on the part of any server or employee, to steal millions.
Perhaps the most famous former-criminal turned witness for the prosecution alive today is Frank Abagnale. The exploits of Frank Abagnale are so famous, Leonardo DiCaprio played him opposite Tom Hanks in the movie version of a book Abagnale wrote about his life, Catch Me if You Can.
Abagnale got his start forging documents, kiting checks, and convincing the gullible to cash worthless financial instruments. Before he was caught by the FBI, the barely 20-year old Frank Abagnale had impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, even the head of a hospital ward. He had also stolen untold mountains of cash.
One of his cleverest tricks involved buying a used banking “MICR” machine at auction, stealing a stack of generic deposit slips from his local bank, then using the MICR machine to encode blank deposit slips with his own account number at the bottom and putting them back into the stack. Before banking authorities caught on, Abagnale had absconded with thousands.
Creating fake documents was a particular speciality of his. It was one of the reasons Abagnale was able to elude authorities for as long as he did. But as police detectives like to say, the criminal has to get lucky every time; the cops only need to get lucky once.
Eventually, Abagnale was caught, charged and sentenced for his crimes. Only a funny thing happened on the way to incarcerated obscurity.
FBI agents were so impressed with Abagnale, his ingenuity and the difficulty they had in catching him, they eventually hired him to help solve fraud cases.
By all accounts, Frank Abagnale has proven just as adept in training cops to catch crooks as he ever was as a crook himself. A reformed criminal mastermind is a valuable asset.
To this day, he remains a leading expert in the field of financial fraud, confidence schemes, and all manner of fakers and would-be digital bank robbers. He teaches law enforcement agents, corporate security managers, and others who wants to learn, how to avoid being hacked, cloned, and phished into ruination and oblivion.
Mr. Abagnale is often asked questions by those he trains who are familiar with his old exploits from the late 1960s. After all, he did write several books it. One of the questions he gets most frequently: “Could you have gotten away with it today?”
This question- from people who understand all the improvements in security, digital watermarks, sophisticated technology and systems for detecting fraudulent transactions, forged documents, counterfeit currency which have been created over the past five decades, is telling.
Those asking it expect the obvious answer.
They don’t get it.
According to Abagnale, committing and getting away with fraud is easier than ever before; 4000x easier in 2022 than in 1967.
Oh, sure; technology is better: Watermarks, sequential numbering, transmitters, magnetic markers, databases, metrics, security cameras, complicated authentication measures.
People are just as gullible as ever.
Which is why, from U.S. cities attacked with ransomware, to cyber attacks that bring billion-dollar corporations to a standstill, to the personal and financial data of millions routinely exposed online by a hack or a leak, online crime and fraud is up on a massive scale.
On an individual scale, the same is true. Like most other types of crime in 2022, credit card and banking fraud, identity theft, phishing schemes, fake fundraisers, and phony credit card offers are on the rise.
As the economy takes a turn for the worse, and the bite of inflation drives consumers living paycheck to paycheck to frantic desperation, the problem is likely to balloon in the coming year.
Most of the time, it isn’t the extremely wealthy who are taken in by criminal enterprises and hucksters. Wealthy people have bankers, lawyers, accountants; money managers and security consultants to insulate and protect them.
It is the impoverished and marginalized who are most often the target of fraud schemes and financial criminals.
Desperation for money drives plenty of otherwise smart people to believe in a fake lottery ticket split, or a wealthy prince, or a pre-paid debit card falling unexpectedly into the mailbox.
Financial fraud is not a victimless crime; far from it. These types of crimes devastate entire families, leaving bankruptcy, divorce, suicide and destitution in their widening wake.
U.S. lawmakers in both parties must soon do all they can to protect U.S. consumers, companies and industries from this growing threat.
In a series of articles, we will examine a few of the tentacles of the many-headed hydra of computer crimes, fraud, and phishing, including some of the ways credit card companies are making it too easy for scammers to succeed.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)